To describe Varikkasseri Mana as one of the most sought after shooting locations for Malayalam movies will be to understate the stardom it enjoys. The gargantuan home that showcases traditional Kerala-style architecture in all its glory has been more than a mere backdrop since its first appearance in the run-away hit 'Devasuram' (1993). Rising to the status of a character that shared screen space with the actors – one that defined Mohanlal's 'Mangalassery Neelakandan' in many ways – the Mana has since turned a superstar in its own right.
Though filmmaker I V Sasi intended them as symbols of the decadent values of a feudal society, both the Mana and Neelakantan came to represent abiding valiance in the hearts of Malayali audience. The movie spawned a whole genre of Malayalm flicks that fed off the bright side of the feudal order. Varikkasseri Mana, with its eloquent presence, completed the picture like in most of the successful versions. Such has been the presence of the house on screen that it turned a tourist spot over the years. Visitors walk down the long corridors, roam around in the expanse of its interiors and the open courtyard, reliving their favourite scenes in movies.
Before the Mana made it to the silver screen, it was referred to after the name of the village, Manissery. The village is located to the north of Ottappalam in Palakkad, near Vaniyamkulam. A journey to Manisseri feels more like entering a time warp that stubbornly holds on to the quintessential Malayali spirit. A kilometre away from the town – which can be covered in a leisurely stroll drinking in the beauty of the quaint old countryside – stands the imposing iron gate with 'Varikkasseri Mana' written over it in large letters.
The gate replaced the old dilapidated one somewhere around the time the Mana became a tourist attraction. After Devasuram rendered it an overnight sensation, the Mana became the location for several blockbusters in Malayalam – 'Aram Thampuran,' 'Rappakal,' and 'Valyettan' to name a few.
The colossal structure of the old house is made up of a 'nalukettu,' an open courtyard or 'nadumuttam' around which the house is built and two built-in granaries or 'pathayappura.' The compound also houses a large pond and the 'kudumba kshetram' – a temple attached to the premises of the house where the family deities are worshipped. A stroll, taking in the details, from the gate to the pond will take a good two-and-a-half hours. The magnificent woodwork evident in ordinary pieces like the doors and windows and the intricate structures like roofs, stairs and corridors stand testimony to the architectural brilliance that Kerala could boast of.
An elaborately done up portico greets visitors to the Varikkassery Mana. The carved wooden pillars, ceiling and the ornate barricade add to the royal splendour of the setting. I V Sasi, the habitual hit-maker of Malayalam movie industry, rightly gauged the vibes of this portico even in its time-worn pre-stardom state. The feudal arrogance of 'Mangalassery Neeakandan' - the hero of 'Devasuram,' was never more effectively stated than while reposing on a strategically positioned armchair on this very portico.
The main door is bedecked with brass plating like those typically scene on special doors in mansions and palaces of Kerala. The architect of the Mana, Jatadevan Namboodiri, was renowned to be a master craftsman during his time. Nalukettu – the four pronged structure that makes up the house – is built to house a family of two hundred and odd members.
The main entrance to the house form the portico now stays closed by default. The walls on either side of the door were painted with murals when filmmakers conjured up the perfect setting for ostentatious feudal lord characters. The portico was redone under the able guidance of architect Krishnan Namboothiripad.
The entrance to the 'nadumuttam' is through a corridor on the left end of the veranda. The raised platform of the veranda used to accommodate gatherings of around 50 men. All of them could comfortably sit cross-legged on the roomy platform. A perfect rectangle, the veranda complements the larger open space of the 'nadumuttam' – the backdrop of the dance scene in 'Narasimham' where Mohanlal, Jagathy, Vasundhara Das and a whole assortment of stars danced to the groovy number 'Dham dhinakka dhillam dhillam.'
The entire complex of the Mana stands on a four acre plot. The structure has three floors with walls of red bricks, six-feet long windows and tiled roof. The symmetric arrangement of double panel doors and windows on each floor, giving the impression that they are stacked one on top of the other, makes for a visual treat. The stairs lead up to a door which can be locked from upstairs. The roof resting on 10-feet high walls allow free air flow inside the house. Come summer or winter, it is always cool inside the Mana.
Four long verandas are connected to make the square structure of the nalukettu. The corridors branching off from the verandas lead to rooms in the interiors. The four wings of the nalukettu are referred to after the directions they are in – 'thekkini,' 'vadakkini,' 'kizhakkini,' and 'padinjattini' which correspond to south, north, east and west sides of the house. Kitchen is a separate wing behind the house, built like an elongated hall. The sheer size of the dining hall adjacent to the kitchen speaks volumes of the number of people who must have sat down for a meal at the same time in the olden days.
Among the volumes of quaint lore surrounding the Mana, one says that the basic structure was planned and initiated by Perumthachan, the legendary carpenter who achieved cult status in Kerala due to his extraordinary gift. There is no evidence to prove this theory. The descendants of the Varikkasseri family believe that the version that credits Jatadevan Namboothiri as the architect is more reliable.
The two-storied granary, known as pathayappura, is designed with such precision that it blends seamlessly with the aesthetics of the structure. The architectural acumen of the design is also evident in the neat arrangement of rooms, veranda and long halls on the floors above and below the pathayappura. Grains were stored on the ground floor. A full granary meant that the extra large family of the Mana would have enough rice to last a whole year.
A wooden spiral staircase from the western corner of the pathayappura leads up to the first floor. One of the rooms, with its floor redone using ceramic tiles, is likely to look familiar to movie-buffs; it is the room that Mangalassery Neelakandan, played by Mohanlal, throws open for the the aged Appu Mashu (Nedumudi Venu) and his two daughters when the bank confiscated their mortgaged house.
The second granary stands to the south of the family temple on the premises. Now occupied by servants, the pathayappura is out of bounds for visitors.
The principal deity of the family temple is Lord Sri Krishna. Lord Shiva is also worshipped. To the east of the temple lies the large pond. The 'kulappura' where people could change clothes before and after taking a bath in the pond, is now partly ruined. But the pond certainly would beckon you to stop awhile and rest on the steps with feet dangling into the cold water. It looks every bit dreamy and surreal as it did in the movie Aram Thampuran.
Some of the major flicks that captured the old world charm at Varikkasseri Mana include, 'Madambi,' 'Thooval Kottaram,' 'Drona,' 'Soofi Paranja Katha,' 'Pretham,' 'Kavalan,' 'Manthrikan,' and 'Simhasanam.'
A widely circulated myth in the filmi world is that only by sheer luck will a movie end up being filmed at the Varikkasseri Mana.
There is a steady flow of visitors to the Mana round the year – tourists who have zeroed in on it as an exquisite destination, movie buffs, Mohanlal fans and so on. The elegant setting is also a much sought-after location for wedding videos and photography. Visitors are required to buy entry tickets. The Mana remains closed to visitors during movie shoots.
Distance from Palakkad – 35 km; from Ottappalam – 6 km.